In Riding Lessons, Sara Gruen gives us a challenging heroine, one who is emotionally stunted yet remarkably sympathetic. We first meet Annemarie as a world-class rider at age 18, possessed with herself, her beloved horse, Harry, and the expectations that others, particularly her domineering father, have for her career. After an accident that destroys Harry and nearly destroys her, she cannot face riding again, and equally cannot face her father and those she believes, rightly or wrongly, expect her to live up to her promise as an equestrienne. So, after a remarkable recovery, she sets about proving herself in a life entirely divorced from her family. Twenty years later, that life falls apart, and Annemarie learns that her father has ALS. The remainder of the novel plays out her growing awareness of herself, amid many missteps, as she reconciles the person she has become with the life she abandoned.
Gruen writes the book from Annemarie's point of view, allowing us to see among the heroine's many faults her understanding that the weakness are her own. We feel her struggle to reach out to her dying father and her pain at being unable to bring herself to do so. We see what's wrong with her handling of her daughter, yet we understand, and we appreciate her willingness to accept her role in the contentious relationship and try to change.
And then there are the horses. Without sentimentalizing, Gruen brings to life the powerful feelings that come as horse and rider learn to respond to one another. Gruen's writing, and particularly her dialog, is smooth and natural and sometimes playful. She gives us the details we need to understand a scene or a character and lets us react-with tears and occasional laughter for this reader. This is a book to be savored, one I'm sure I'll reread before long.